Court Silences Man Who Painted Protest Sign on His House
William Bowden painted â€œScrewed by the Town of
Caryâ€ on his house after a road-widening project (allegedly)
directed runoff onto his property, damaging his North Carolina
home. Within hours, zoning officials paid him a visit, ordering him
to remove the sign or pay fines of up to $500 for each day of
When Bowden sued, the town argued the sign was a safety hazard
for passing motorists. Officials presented no evidence for this
assertionâ€”no studies or experts. An estimated 15,000 drivers passed
the sign every day for months and, according to court testimony,
had precisely zero accidents (p.
Nevertheless, in January a federal appeals court
ruled the sign had caused â€œtraffic problemsâ€ because:
â€¦the bright fluorescent lettering sprayed across Bowden’s home
distracted both a Cary police officer and a passing motorist, who
â€œbeeped his hornâ€ to get the officer’s attention.
The decision upholds the townâ€™s sign code, which limits public
displays to a certain sizeâ€”but contains exemptions for art and
holiday decorations. Bowden argued the ordinance falls afoul of the
First Amendmentâ€™s requirement that speech restrictions be content
neutral. The code improperly permits, for instance, a sign that
says â€œMerry Christmasâ€ but allows officials to censor speech they
The judges, who voted 3-0 for the town, were not impressed. From
â€œIf we take your argument, though, arenâ€™t we â€¦ essentially
saying that each house is a billboard for protest signs, and that
you could just drive down the street, just every house having
something painted that they wanted everybody to see, and nobody
could do anything?â€ asked Judge Max Cogburnâ€¦. “The townâ€™s totally
powerless to stop it, based on size, color, anything else?â€
Because we just canâ€™t have people who arenâ€™t hurting anyone
doing whatever they want.
No word yet on whether Bowdenâ€™s estateâ€”he passed away in
2011â€”will appeal to the Supreme Court. However, a trial court in
the same circuit will hear a
case with similar facts this week. Norfolk, VA officials are
threatening a businessman with $1,000-a-day fines for a banner
protesting plans to seize his property via eminent domain.
Enforcement is obviously content basedâ€”officials had no problem
with many signs, some of them much larger, that didnâ€™t happen to be
criticizing the government.